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Japanese Surfing Team Tokyo Games 2020 – Preview

Japan is not exactly globally recognised as a surf destination, but despite that, the country has been bestowed with the prestigious honour of being the first ever to host an Olympics surfing event. This, of course, comes with certain perks for Japanese surfers, namely that one man and one woman are automatically given a spot at the event. In the end, however, there were four who qualified through other routes regardless, so let’s take a look at who will be flying the flag of the host country at Tsurigasaki Beach.

The Team

In the same way that the country is not exactly renowned for its wave, Japan is not recognised for the number of top-tier surfers it produces either. In recent years, however, that has changed a little courtesy of one man, and it’s he who will be carrying the medal hopes for the locals. That man, of course, is Kanoa Igarashi, a 23-year-old who has been creeping his way up the world rankings ever since he joined the Championship Tour in 2016. 

He is far and away the best surfer on the home country’s team, and will be joined by Hiroto Ohhara, Mahina Maeda and Amuro Tsuzuki, all of whom qualified through the ISA World Surfing Games. They are just 24, 23 and 20 years of age respectively, making Japan one of the youngest teams at Tsurigasaki Beach, and have competed in just a handful of Championship Tour events between them, meaning this will be one of the biggest events that they’ve ever surfed in.

The Men

As we mentioned, Kanoa Igarashi is comfortably the best chance that Japan have of taking home a medal, and he’s far from just a token hope for the home nation. As mentioned, he has shown an impressive ability to improve season after season over the course of his five years on tour – after finishing 20th at the end of his 2016, he finished 17th in 2017, 10th in 2018 and 6th in 2019. The last of those years also saw him earn his first ever win at the top level when he took out the Corona Bali Protected, while he also enjoyed a third-place finish in Portugal. He still has a way to go to get to the star Brazilian trio of Medina, Ferreira and Toledo, as well as Hawaiian John John Florence, but at a young age he is tracking in the right direction to one day be a world champion, and it might not be too long until he is genuinely contending. Indeed, even this year, despite something of a slow start, he is a great chance to finish in the top five at season’s end and earn a chance at the title in Trestles, where he’s performed well in the past.

In terms of the Olympics, he will obviously have the advantage of competing in front of a supportive crowd (assuming they are allowed), though he won’t necessarily have as much experience with the wave as you might expect. Igarashi was actually born and raised at Huntington Beach in California after his parents moved there while his mother was pregnant with him, so he didn’t exactly grow up surfing Japanese waves. His father, however, was an avid surfer and regularly surfed at Tsurigasaki Beach, so Kanoa will no doubt have plenty of first-hand advice to soak up.

Of course, while he’s a legitimate chance at taking home not just a medal, but the Gold, he’s not the only surfer on the Japanese team. Accompanying him on the men’s side of the action is Hiroto Ohhara, a 24-year-old from Chiba – the prefecture in which Tsurigasaki Beach is located. He’s made just three appearances at the top level in his career, spending most of his time in the Qualifying Series, so it’s tough to imagine that he will be able to go with the best surfers in the world, but with more knowledge of the conditions than probably any other surfer at the event he may be able to spring a surprise or two.

The Women

Neither of the two women who will be representing Japan have a reputation like Kanoa Igarashi, with both of them having surfed predominantly in the Qualifying Series so far in their career. If recent events are anything to go by, however, that may not remain the case, at least not for 20-year-old Amuro Tsuzuki. Born in 2001, she showed a lot of improvement last season to win a couple of Qualifying Series events – one of which was held in Chiba. Then, in the recent extended Australia leg of the Championship Tour, she benefited from the withdrawals of a couple of more highly ranked surfers, earning a start at the Narrabeen Classic, Margaret River Pro and Rottnest Search. And rather than just making up the numbers, she performed admirably in her first ever events at the top level. 

At Narrabeen she was defeated in the Round of 16 by Caroline Marks – which there is no shame in – while at Margaret River she topped a three-woman seeding heat which Marks was again part of, before going down to Frenchwoman Johanne Defay. Her best result came at Rottnest where she again topped her seeding group, before she was hugely impressive in scoring 14.33 to upset Courtney Conlogue. Those performances suggested that there are likely to be plenty more Championship Tour appearances on the horizon, and at just 20 years of age she has plenty of potential still to unlock. There certainly isn’t too much in the way of expectations on her shoulders at the Olympics, but with her improved recent performances, knowledge of conditions and local support, she could cause a few headaches for the more well-renowned pros. 

Sharing the Japanese colours with her is Mahina Maeda, who has more experience but is probably less likely to pull a surprise and sneak onto the podium. At just 23 years of age, she is still very young, but she’s spent a number of years in the Qualifying Series and appears most likely to continue at that level. One thing in her favour is that in 2019, she finished third in the same Qualifying Series event that Tsuzuki won in Chiba, demonstrating that she has the capacity to surf waves in this part of a world to a high level. That is certainly a valuable asset for her and makes her more likely to advance further than expected than the competitors who qualified through the same route as her, but nonetheless it would be a huge shock to see her add to Japan’s medal tally.

The Japanese team certainly doesn’t have the depth of some other teams to have filled their quota of four surfers, but they are still a chance of earning a medal at the event. Igarashi, of course, is the best hope of doing that, and it would be no surprise whatsoever to see him still paddling with just a few competitors left. Neither female surfers is expected to challenge for a medal, but Tsuzuki is certainly worth keeping an eye on as someone with a chance to cause an upset.